Forty-nine years ago, at the tender age of seventeen, I watched this movie in a run-down cinema in North Wales and it absolutely blew me away. (Why not fifty years, you might ask? Well, although released in America in ’67, the film didn’t actually reach the UK, until September of the following year.) It was one of the first movies to open me up to the possibilities of what cinema could do – it was fresh, innovative and quite unlike any other film I’d seen up to that point. It was also a superb adaptation of Charles Webb’s excellent novel of the same name.
Going back to rewatch it after so long felt decidedly odd. I have aged over those intervening years; my world has changed in so many ways – and yet The Graduate remains as pristine and remarkable as it was all those years ago, like some rare insect preserved in amber.
Golden boy Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) returns from college to the family home in LA, where he feels alienated, unable to connect with his parents and their wealthy friends, who insist on throwing parties for him and telling him what a wonderful future he has ahead of him. ‘I have one word for you, Benjamin. Plastics.’ When the predatory Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft), the wife of Mr Braddock’s business partner makes a pass at Benjamin, he is at first horrified – but he soon rethinks his position and enters into a secretive and self-destructive affair with her. Things look set to continue in the same sorry vein until the Robinsons’ daughter, Elaine (Katherine Ross), comes home for a visit and everybody urges Benjamin to take her out on a date…
The first thing that strikes me about watching this again is how incredibly vibrant the film feels and how audacious it is, compared to the kind of straightforward blockbuster product we see so often now. (Lest we forget, The Graduate won Mike Nichols a best director Oscar and was nominated for a whole clutch of other awards, and yet it has all the brio and experimentation of an alternative indie picture.) Look at the scene where Benjamin and Mrs R conduct a conversation in a hotel room, switching a light on and off, so that, for a good half of the time, the audience is left looking at an almost blank screen. And look at the sequences where disparate events are brilliantly and effortlessly intercut with each other to the sounds of Simon and Garfunkel. This is, quite frankly, genius. I’d also forgotten just how funny the script is. Benjamin’s hapless attempt to check quietly into a hotel room for his first assignation with Mrs R demonstrates a masterful slice of comic timing, which had me laughing out loud. Hoffman creates the first in what later proves to be a whole series of character studies, and Anne Bancroft, as the manipulative Mrs Robinson, manages to convey the sadness and desperation behind her hard-faced persona.
One last observation. The film carried an ‘R’ rating on its initial release, but now it’s sexual machinations are considered tame enough to qualify for a 12A. I’m not sure what that says about our society.
What else is there to add? Only that, if you’ve never seen it, then you should rectify that situation immediately. And if, like me, you have fond memories of the film and are worried that it might have dated badly, let me reassure you: it hasn’t dated at all. Indeed, in these conformist times, it shines like the cinematic diamond it undoubtedly is.